Battle Of The Sexes Wrestling, Battle Of The Sexes: Men Vs Women Tag In Atlanta

Thirty years ago two female wrestlers took part in an historic mixed tag-team match with two male wrestlers at a packed Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. This was not the usual mixed tag with the ring action strictly segregated by sex. The women were not wrestling separately on teams paired with the men but together as a team against the men. This was a true battle of the sexes, male versus female on the mat, no quarter given and no place to hide. Joyce Grable and Judy Martin put Jerry Roberts and Steve O. through their paces in a straight-up, nip-and-tuck bout that was raw, physical and deadly serious — at times a little too serious. The crowd of 12,000 exploded at every dramatic turn. The fact that the members of the so-called weaker sex acquitted themselves so well is just one amazing part of an untold story.

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Joyce Grable and Judy Martin double team Steve O. in the corner during their epic men versus women bout in 1980. Photos courtesy Joyce Grable

The match displayed the timeless elements that have defined classic combat through the ages: an apparent mismatch in the strength of the opponents, a contrast in styles, a seesaw struggle full of surprising shifts and bold feats. It asked the eternal questions: Can speed and savvy overcome strength and size? Can a skilled middleweight beat a skilled heavyweight? Can a determined female grappler stand up to a powerful male pro? Can she beat him?

With all that as backdrop, the capacity crowd was in for a rare sight at the special Thanksgiving Day matches put on by Georgia Championship Wrestling. And they would look on in awe as the two husky blondes whaled into the two muscle-bound hunks. The speedy, athletic gals confidently traded grips with the beefy guys, getting them into trouble and even repeatedly putting them on their backs. Split-second escapes and a final body slam rescued male wrestling pride from a fate similar to what Billie Jean King had served up to Bobby Riggs seven years earlier.

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The wrestling version of the battle of the sexes got nowhere near the attention of King vs. Riggs. But the 1980 match offers up a far more unlikely and transgressive chapter in the ongoing struggle of women to achieve a place of their own in sports.

Nowadays mixed matches are common currency on a wrestling landscape that has seen scores of female pros defeat men in the squared circle and even occasionally take possession of male title belts. Chyna wrested the WWF Intercontinental Championship title from 226-pound Chris Jericho at No Mercy on Oct. 17, 1999, Jazz upended 224-pound Jason at Heatwave on Aug. 2, 1999, and as recently as last summer, 160-pound Sara Del Rey pinned 232-pound Claudio Castagnoli with a crucifix shortly after the 13-minute mark in the main event of Chikarasaurus Rex: Night Two. In amateur wrestling, women have defeated men at the college level and three high school girls have even won boys’ state championships. Seven thousand girls now wrestle in high school, most of them against boys. Today, Cyndi Lauper might just as well sing “Girls Just Wanna Rassle.”

A woman whipping a man in wrestling today is almost blasé. But when Joyce Grable and Judy Martin entered the ring on the night of Nov. 27, 1980, they were planting female wrestling boots down on uncharted male turf, like explorers wading ashore in the New World without knowing if the natives were friendly.

There were plenty of women wrestlers back then, but the idea that one of them could take on a male pro on equal terms was viewed as sheer fantasy. Still, in an age of women’s liberation, the question kept coming up and was sometimes debated in wrestling magazines — “Can Gals Beat Men in Pro Mixed Matches?” Ring Wrestling asked in a cover headline in 1970. Women, especially female wrestlers, seemed more curious about such matches than men, whose response was usually widespread scoffing. A true mixed match remained the last taboo.

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It was the booker and wrestler Ole Anderson, working for the famed promoter Jim Barnett, who put such a match before the public, in a big way. The Omni Thanksgiving Tag Team Tournament in Atlanta featured big-name wrestlers and was televised on TBS.

Anderson didn’t think much of the ability of women wrestlers, but he did think they might be good for business.

“On the surface, I wasn’t crazy about it, but I came up with an idea that I thought might draw some money,” Anderson said in Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling, his 2003 autobiography written with Scott Teal. “It was an idea similar to the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. Billie Jean King beat Riggs in the exhibition that was billed as the Battle of the Sexes. I used that as an example. I was just trying to create a little interest.”

People thought Ole Anderson was crazy, of course. Verne Gagne, the wrestling legend and former world champion, was one of the most vocal opponents. “Ole got a lot of flak about it,” recalled Joyce Grable. “Verne Gagne told him, ‘What are you thinking? This will never go over. Who will accept two girls wrestling two guys?’ ”

“When Verne heard that I put the girls in the tournament with the men, he was really ticked off at me,” Anderson wrote. “He called and said, ‘Boy, talk about exposing the business. How in the hell can the girls wrestle with the men?”

“Jeez, Verne,” I replied. “That’s nothing compared to all the goofy stuff that’s been done in this business.”

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The choice of women couldn’t have been better. Under their big blond Farah Fawcett manes, Grable and Martin were formidable wrestlers. At 27, Joyce Grable was a three-time Women’s World Tag Team champion, currently holding the title in a tandem with the powerful Wendi Richter. The Georgia-born Grable was a wily eight-year veteran of the ring, skilled at aerial moves like the dropkick and the flying head scissors and equally adept at chain wrestling moves like the body scissors and Boston crab. She knew how to use the holds to tell a story and create drama, and she knew how to handle herself if things got rough. For the historic mixed bout, she would be by far the most experienced wrestler in the ring, and her wrestling smarts would help the women set the tone and pace for the match. Her partner, Judy Martin, was a 24-year-old from Conway, S.C., who had been wrestling for only a year. When she made her debut in October 1979 against the Fabulous Moolah, Martin was so nervous that she trembled in the ring and threw up on the ride home after the match. She had since gotten seasoning in Japan and Mexico and was becoming known for her exceptional strength. But she was still essentially a rookie.

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“At the time, I don’t think everybody realized on my side how green I was,” Martin recalled.

Grable and Martin were chosen in part because they were sturdy enough to look credible wrestling men. Grable was listed at a very solid 5-6 and 140 pounds, and looked even bigger in the ring, and Martin was an even more imposing 5-8 and 155. “It had to look like this person could actually wrestle that person, that we could beat them,” Grable recalled. “That people would buy it.”

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